Dupre may make McKinley summit bid Sunday

Beth Bragg

The last time Minnesota climber Lonnie Dupre reached 17,200 feet on Mount McKinley, he spent seven days hunkered down in a snow cave, stymied by brutal weather that never allowed him to go any farther up the mountain.

That was two years ago. On Sunday, after spending less than 48 hours at 17,200 feet, Dupre hopes to make a summit bid in his continuing effort to become the first person to make a solo ascent of Denali in the dead of winter.

Dupre, 51, is an arctic adventurer who is back on North America's tallest park for a third straight winter. He's trying to join an elite group of climbers who have successfully climbed the 20,320-foot peak in the winter, something 16 people can claim to have accomplished.

Even more elite is the list of those who made their ascent in January, which is considered the dead of winter -- a time when daylight is scant and the weather can be at its most harsh and unpredictable. In 1998, Artur Testov and Vladimir Ananich of Russia became the first and so far only people to stand atop McKinley in January.

Denali can be a daunting challenge any time of the year, but it's at its most inhospitable in the winter. There are no rangers and no base camp operations during the winter, when whiteouts, howling winds and deep snow make travel more treacherous than usual.

Of the 16 who have summited in the winter, two died on their way down. Another four have died trying to reach the summit.

Dupre stayed at 17,200 feet all day Saturday, resting and expanding his snow cave. Although it was cold, the weather was relatively calm and clear, his project coordinator said.

"He's ready to go," Stevie Anna Plummer of Homer said Saturday afternoon. "The winds are looking pretty good right now, but you know how Alaska weather goes. Right now we're just keeping our fingers crossed, but as far as visibility, we couldn't ask for better."

Dupre reached 17,200 feet Friday night after a long, grueling climb from 14,200 feet.

The day began at 8:30 a.m. at 14,200 feet and ended around 8:30 p.m. at 17,200 feet, Plummer said. It was 11 p.m. by the time Dupre had built a snow cave and settled in for the night, Plummer said.

When Dupre reached the bottom of the Headwall at 15,200 feet, he discovered that the fixed rope lines were frozen to the side of the mountain. He had to free the lines before he could proceed, Plummer said.

By the time he reached the top of the Headwall, it was 4 p.m. He spent the next 41/2 hours traveling the West Buttress ridge in temperatures that dipped to minus 35 and winds that reached 40 mph, he told his support crew.

"I talked to him this morning," Plummer said. "He was working on expanding his snow cave since he got there so late last night -- working on making it a little more cozy. He's trying to rest up in case (Sunday) is summit day."

Plummer is operating as if Sunday will be summit day and intended to drive to Talkeetna on Saturday night. The plan is for Dupre to call her once he reaches the Football Field at 19,000 feet; then Talkeetna Air Taxi will fly Plummer to the mountain, where she hopes to get photos of Dupre on the summit.

If all goes according to plan, she said, Dupre will leave his camp Sunday around 4 a.m. They figure it will take about 12 hours to go from 17,200 feet to the summit and back again.

Dupre's climb began Jan. 8 when he flew to Kahiltna Glacier with 34 days worth of supplies.

Last year, Dupre spent seven days at 14,200 feet before turning back because of relentless, howling winds and horrible visibility. In 2011, he spent seven days at 17,200 feet before abandoning the climb due to weather.

"The experience you gain from each expedition and climb significantly reduces the risk because you understand the route more intimately and can fine tune your equipment accordingly," Dupre said before his latest climb. "So this year I'm more confident because I'm traveling lighter and more efficiently."

But the biggest difference between this attempt and previous ones is the weather, Plummer said.

"It's been a lot warmer," she said. "He's gotten very good visibility and it looks good today and tomorrow, but the biggest difference from this year and last year is the warm weather."

Reach Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn.com or 257-4335.